Can IP Replace Everything in Building Management?

When a person like me, from the field of IT, reads white papers like these prepared by Johnson Controls, this and that and informational RFCs like, he or she can think they were trying to completely replace BACnet, LonTalk, or Modbus with IP. If they did, the facilities side of building devices and equipment could rely upon the IT infrastructure completely, and data integration could be established between facilities and IT. Then the integration of all the facilities and IT equipment/devices could happen in the building environment, including data centers, which are a special kind of building.

This is probably not for existing buildings but only for greenfield buildings, because we cannot replace the existing building monitoring and controlling infrastructure. If we want to apply a new infrastructure, including software for monitoring and controlling by means of IP, we need to write software for each and every device and piece of equipment. It would take an enormous amount of effort to replace the existing infrastructure. And sometimes it may not be possible, because we may not be able to find the expertise for some devices or equipment, some of which may depend upon a particular hardware that is incompatible with IP. Without detailed understanding of them, it would be impossible to write software for them. Those who prepared the original software for monitoring and controlling them should rewrite the software with IP. But will that happen soon enough?

As I research this, I wonder if the total replacement of the infrastructure with IP can happen at all, much less anytime soon. Even in greenfield environments, the same problem exists. Someone needs to develop new infrastructures with IP, which will not be a trivial undertaking, technologically and otherwise. So I checked with Johnson Controls about what their white papers really mean. Judging from their reply, it appears that IP would be used as a transport for global communications, but local dealings would be decided locally. Another indication is that NIST’s report on the standard technologies for smart grid names BACnet and LonTalk as accepted technologies. Smart grid technologies are selected for future proof probably in the order of decades. This indicates that either BACnet or LonTalk will not stop existing soon.

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So what does this mean? If we could convert the data format from the facilities devices and equipment to XML, that data could be transported via IP and shared with the IT infrastructure. In a very simple fashion, that could be accomplished by having a set of gateways. If that is the case, is it not a big change?

What does this look like from the other side (IT/IP)? I read a few papers from Cisco. It appears that Cisco has a great idea to separate functions from devices and equipment and make those functions applicable to each and every device and piece of equipment. And those functions are standardized with libraries and APIs. But who is going to develop such libraries of functions that require very specific domain expertise? Why don’t HVAC equipment vendors work with lighting vendors to support the same functions in a standard way? Some good collaboration between IT companies like Cisco and incumbent building management companies like Johnson Controls would be required for this. I have not seen such collaboration yet. I need more research into this. I really want to find out what the integration of facilities and IT via IP means. Is it the degree of integration rather than the integration itself? At this point, integration has a broad meaning.

Often, technologies alone do not show the status of a field like building energy management. But in this case, the position towards IP might indicate where this field is going.

Zen Kishimoto

About Zen Kishimoto

Seasoned research and technology executive with various functional expertise, including roles in analyst, writer, CTO, VP Engineering, general management, sales, and marketing in diverse high-tech and cleantech industry segments, including software, mobile embedded systems, Web technologies, and networking. Current focus and expertise are in the area of the IT application to energy, such as smart grid, green IT, building/data center energy efficiency, and cloud computing.

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